I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person. However, there’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.
The way to think about this is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you. The character is talking to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure.
You’re listening to somebody spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in being believed. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.
The first grandma might start:
We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.
Grandma in the Pokey might start:
Now, you listen here. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not admitting I did anything of the kind — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that black-hearted thieving scoundrel live even another minute would have been the death of me.
The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot Jimmy O’Toole, he of the prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.
Here’s a setup that begs for a first person unreliable narrator:
Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.
Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.
Talk, says Joan. And it better be good.
All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by motivations hidden and in plain sight, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to stay out of trouble’s way that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.
Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty‘s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. If you are at all interested in unabridged audio, this book was produced beautifully and perfectly narrated by Frances Sternhagen with a pitch-perfect Maine accent (PW review here).
Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.